Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls seems to have been around for years, and last night I saw this production for the third time (I have seen other productions of the play, too – it seems to be a play beloved of the nation’s repertory theatres. This may be because it’s a GCSE set text, thus guaranteeing a likely audience of sixteen-year-olds, at least.) I think it’s suffered somewhat from its association with exams, though – most people who have studied it at GCSE don’t seem to like it – perhaps its slightly Victorian moralising is not appealing when filtered down to the classroom. Of course, it does have obvious advantages for a set text, though – there are obvious “themes” (horrible word) which can be drawn out of it and used endlessly in exam questions (generational conflict, the coming of war, moral responsibility for humankind, etc). Daldry’s version nicely plays to these; last night I felt myself slightly irritated by the wild gesticulations and emphatic enunciation of Inspector Goole, but the moment when the Birlings realise that the Inspector was pre-empting the death of Eva Smith still raises goose-bumps, as does the dawning realisation that the selfish behaviour of the older generation might be one of the instigators of war.
I’ve always thought that Sheila Birling gets all the best lines, here they were carried off to perfection (“He inspected us all right” always goes down a storm, and the “in fire and blood and anguish” speech is still moving), while Mrs Birling was delightfully Lady-Bracknell-esque in her attempts to dismiss the Inspector and maintain her position.
Daldry’s Inspector is now well known for its dramatic staging, with the enclosed, safe world of the Birlings literally blown apart on stage. Priestley maintained it was a mistake to see his work as realist, and Daldry’s staging gives it an almost surrealist atmosphere which makes one see how ridiculous it is to consider oneself isolated from the world, secure in society, as the Birlings do.
The Inspector looked like a 1940s detective (Philip Marlowe, anyone?), the urchins and onlookers are also from the 1940s – which is, of course, when the play was first staged, but seems to confuse the First and Second World Wars in the minds of the viewer, since the play is set in 1910. Priestley, of course, was conjuring WWI in the shadow of WWII, with the bombing which the opening air raid siren and the demolished house suggest, and I eventually twigged that this is another way of suggesting that An Inspector Calls gives every generation the possibility of judging the actions of those before them. I’m still mulling over this one – but if you want to see a production of An Inspector Calls, Daldry’s is the one to see.